The ancient Celtic world and its larger-than-life inhabitants have too often been manipulated for political and religious ends. A glance at some of the gable walls of Northern Ireland’s cities make that all too clear.
But the Celtic tradition need not be divisive, or the preserve of one ‘side’ in the longstanding conflict on this island. The latest book by Rev. Dr Johnston McMaster, A Passion for Justice: Social Ethics in the Celtic Tradition, (Dunedin, 2008) reinterprets Celtic Christianity with a view to utilising its greatest insights to promote peace, justice and all-around ethical practice.
An ordained minister in the Methodist Church in Ireland, Rev Dr McMaster lectures on and co-ordinates an adult education programme, Education for Reconciliation. This programme is located within the Belfast campus of Trinity College Dublin, the Irish School of Ecumenics.
A Passion for Justice is an ideal educational tool. It is written in a clear prose that makes the range of its appeal quite wide – from schoolchildren to adults. Its style reflects McMaster’s rich experience with collaborative and discussion-based adult education techniques, with each chapter featuring a narrative, a summary of key points, and questions for discussion.
This format is useful not only for students reviewing the text for religious education classes, but adult groups who want to use the book to stimulate deeper discussion about the issues it raises.
These issues are raised through McMaster’s analysis of the lives of a handful of prominent Christian saints from the Celtic era – Patrick the Apostle, Brigid of Kildare – ‘the flame of justice’, Columba – ‘the ambivalent peacemaker’, Columbanus – the patron saint of a united Europe’, and lesser-known Celtic women such as Ita of Kileedy, Monenna of Kileevy, Samthann of Clonbroney, and Canair of Bantry.
McMaster draws from the most reliable sources available to reconstruct the lives of these saints, which are often shrouded in mystery and trivial tales. Any schoolchild in Ireland could probably tell you that St Patrick ‘drove the snakes out of Ireland,’ but would struggle to articulate what is unique and even inspiring about St Patrick’s Christian worldview.
McMaster does just that. He explains how St Patrick experienced God through the natural elements – demonstrating his holy respect for nature, and points out how he took the soldiers of Coroticus to task for their inhumane treatment of his Christian community.
A message for today? Take care of the environment and speak up for those who cannot defend themselves.
McMaster also presents a well-rounded and critical view of these saints, pushing readers beyond the early hagiographical sources. Of St Patrick he writes (page 34):
‘Patrick interprets his experience of captivity and enslavement along with others as divine retribution for past failings and for neglecting God in his youth. He falls into the trap of portraying God as a God of violence and the cause of suffering and retribution. This God image is unethical and detracts from the socio-economic, political roots of suffering.’
And of St Columba, McMaster recounts how he essentially stoked up a war after he was caught illicitly copying Finnian of Moville’s extremely valuable translation of the bible. About 3,000 people died in the battle of Culdrevney north of Sligo and Columba was excommunicated. When re-instated to the church, McMaster reports that Columba said ‘It was not I who caused it!’ McMaster comments: ‘Better the victim mentality than accept responsibility!’
A message for today? Even the most saintly among us fail, but that does not make us failures.
The book also features detailed chapters on ‘Celtic Social Ethics,’ of which McMaster identifies seven: hospitality, forgiveness, compassion, gender equality, environmental care, justice, and peacebuilding.
Again, McMaster is not romantic about the Celtic era, critiquing its deep injustices and often murderous violence. But he manages to extract the noblest stories of justice-seeking Christians, those who challenged the violent socio-political status quo and the shortcomings of the church of their day. This includes a particularly insightful passage on the often misunderstood Pelagius (pages 177-179), whose theology was trashed by the powerful Augustine. McMaster writes of Pelagius (page 179):
‘Officially he might be condemned a heretic, but he was an authentic Celtic prophet of justice. ‘God,’ he asserted, ‘has always been pleased with justice and offended by injustice.’
This book should be read as a call to Christians on this island to become ‘prophets of justice.’ McMaster shows that the Celtic tradition can supply a deep well of inspiration for such a spiritual journey. It raises the hope of transcending our former religious divisions and seeking justice for all.